Thin is in

Dec. 15, 2005, midnight | By Katherine Duncan | 15 years, 1 month ago

Pressured by media portrayal, some Blazers resort to extreme measures to achieve the "perfect" body

Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identity of the sources.

For Kate, a senior, forcing herself to vomit after every meal was a daily necessity for several months during her junior year. Her habit felt as natural as brushing her teeth or getting dressed in the morning.

Though Kate was aware of the dangers inherent in her self-induced vomiting, her quest for a "perfect" body outweighed any foreseeable risks associated with bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by vicious cycles of binging and purging.

Scores of teens like Kate possess negative body images that, when coupled with parental pressure and media influence, can lead to life-threatening eating disorders. With the media's heightened emphasis on thinness in the past century and increasingly unattainable standards of beauty, teens are feeling the pressure to conform and are going to dangerous lengths to stay slim.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), as many as 11 million people in the U.S. are fighting a life-and-death battle with eating disorders. Teens are especially at risk for developing such eating disorders, because of their heightened awareness of external influences like peer acceptance during adolescence, according to the National Association of Social Workers. For some body-conscious Blazers, the drive to achieve the perfect body shape becomes a consuming obsession, leading them down a slippery slope of warped body image and eating disorders.

"Why am I doing this?"

Body image, as defined by the NEDA, is how people perceive and feel about their physical appearance. This seemingly simple concept is at the root of most eating disorders and, for many teens, represents a complicated, often painful, inward struggle. Like most bulimics, Kate's plight stemmed from a poor self-image and a deep desire to control both her life and body.

Kate began experimenting with self-induced vomiting because, though she felt that she was in shape physically and was eating healthily, she was still dissatisfied with her body and wanted to do something drastic to change it. At first, Kate forced herself to throw up only after big meals, but as her concept of "fat" shrank, she found herself vomiting after every meal. "I knew it was bad for me, but it was so hard to stop," she says.

Though Kate did not suffer from any symptoms of depression, as many other bulimics do, she says that she was angered and hurt by constant comments from her mother about her weight, eating habits and overall appearance — verbal abuse that she thinks contributed to the development of her eating disorder. "My mom has always been really pushy about body issues," Kate says. "She'll say things like, 'Are you sure you want to eat that?' or, 'I think you're gaining weight.'"

Ashley, a senior, struggled with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder typified by self-starvation and excessive weight loss, when she was in eighth grade. Her experience with the disease began like that of the typical anorexic: "Healthier" eating habits developed into an abnormal fixation with weight, food and calories, eventually leading to almost complete avoidance of food. "[Anorexia] came up randomly," says Ashley. "I took my newly adopted 'healthy' eating habits to an extreme — in fact I wasn't eating healthy at all. I wasn't eating anything."

Though she cannot pinpoint exactly what triggered her eating disorder, Ashley identifies her middle-school experience as a contributing factor. "In middle school, people are confused about who they are," she says. "I felt like I could be better [looking]."

A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics substantiates Ashley's insecurities about her weight and appearance. "During preadolescence and adolescence, concerns with weight and shape are so common among girls that they are considered normal," cites the study.

A starving society

Such pressure from parents and peers, along with the overwhelming standards of perfection set forth by the media, is a heavy burden for any teen to shoulder, enforcing the unhealthy tendency for adolescent girls to develop negative body images.

Numerous studies have shown that body figures in the media have become thinner over time and that repeated exposure to these images results in a negative body image and increased appearance anxiety, according to the International Journal of Eating Disorders. "Many authors have implicated the media's promotion of an unrealistically thin ideal for women as a major causal factor in the current high levels of body dissatisfaction and increasing incidence of eating disorders," cites a 1998 study about the role of television in adolescent girls' body image.

Ashley expresses frustration with modern society for setting unrealistic expectations for girls and women. "We're living in a world where media is everywhere, and the ideal standard for beauty is someone unhealthy," she says.

These images of underweight women are unavoidable in everyday culture, according to the NEDA: The average American is exposed to about 5,000 advertising messages a day. The models featured in many of these ads are thinner than 98 percent of American women, constantly reminding consumers of their "inadequacies," spurring physical insecurities and often a negative body image.

Kate felt the desire to have a stick-thin figure like that of many of the women she saw on television and in magazines. "In the media, there is an abundance of perfect people," she says. "The girls on TV are everything you're not, and you're constantly comparing yourself to them, even though it's an unhealthy comparison."

Kate is not alone in her struggle to conform to the ultra-thin media standards, according to Pam Guthrie, the administrative director of the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association. "One-hundred percent of women at different stages of recovery from bulimia said that the number-one pressure for them to be thin was the media," she says.

Though the "the ideal body" that the media portrays is essentially unrealistic for the vast majority of people, Kate says it is hard to ignore the continuous reminders that being thin is the ultimate achievement. "The media is all around, everywhere you look," Kate says. "It sets the foundation for beauty standards, even if these standards are unreasonable."

As the media pushes thinness deeper into the framework of American society, girls' desires to change their bodies start earlier and earlier: According to the NEDA, 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat and 42 percent of first-to-third grade girls want to be thinner.

The bare minimum

Feeling the pressure from her peers and the media, Ashley regarded her body almost like a scientific experiment, believing that if she controlled what she ate, she could control her weight and, in turn, her life. "I thought, 'If I'm going do this, I'm going to be the best at it," Ashley says.

As her struggle with anorexia intensified, Ashley began to view all food as bad. "I trained myself to think like that," she says. "I was just trying to get away with eating the smallest amount possible."

Ashley's turning point came when she visited the doctor for a routine checkup and discovered that she had shed 25 pounds from her already-small frame over the course of a few months. While Ashley knew that her eating habits had strayed into unhealthy territory, she was not aware that she had developed a full-blown eating disorder. "My period had stopped, and I was always cold, but I hadn't really thought about it all that much," Ashley says. "I lost a lot of weight for someone who wasn't even fat to begin with."

With this weight loss come serious health complications, according to the NEDA, such as heart failure, muscle loss, decreased bone density and severe dehydration. Though Ashley was able to emerge from her experience with anorexia physically unscathed, many others are not as lucky: As many as 20 percent of anorexics will die from the disease — one of the highest death rates among mental health conditions, according to the NEDA.

While Ashley's turning point came from external influences, Kate's came from a desire within herself. Having lived with her secret for several months with no one noticing, Kate felt compelled to tell someone so that she could put an end to her bulimic behavior. "When I told my family, all heads turned — it was a pivotal moment. All of them were like, 'You can't do that to yourself!'" she says.

Kate, recognizing that it is always possible to slip back into the familiar pattern of an eating disorder, tries to maintain a healthy, positive body image and state of mind, though admits that at times, this can be hard. "When bombarded with all of the images from the media, it's easy to think, 'Wow, I really want to be her,'" Kate says of the overexposure to thin models and women in the media. "You just have to separate yourself from this negative thinking and accept that you're the way that you are."

In today's media-driven society, however, thinking positively about one's body can prove to be a difficult feat, as celebrities' waistlines seem to be shrinking by the day and increasing emphasis and value are placed on being slim. Like any other popular trend or fad that permeates every facet of American culture, thin, for the moment, is in.

-Approximately 90-95 percent of anorexia sufferers are girls and women (NEDA)
-Between .5-1 percent of American women suffer from anorexia
-Bulimia affects 20 percent of college-age women (Ohio State University fact sheet)
-A study of 4,294 network TV commercials revealed that 1 out of every 3.8 commercials send some sort of "attractiveness message," telling viewers what is or is not attractive. These researchers estimate that the average adolescent sees over 5,260 "attractiveness messages" per year

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Katherine Duncan. Katherine Duncan is beyond excited to be in her senior year of high school. A perpetually tired, slightly spaztic girl, Katherine enjoys many things--including hanging out with her friends, going shopping and being lazy. Though she is still license-less, she has a permit (finally) and … More »

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